[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Bear. Read at your own risk!]
The Bear is an ensemble production in the truest sense, a dark, feverish salute to the restaurant industry set at a floundering sandwich joint called the Original Beef of Chicagoland. Every ensemble piece needs its window to the audience to help make sense of it all, and here, that role belongs to Ayo Edebiri's Sydney, a trained chef hired by Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) after he inherits the Original Beef following the death of his brother. Coming off of a failed business venture and a stint at UPS (that's the United Parcel Service, not an out-of-state restaurant, as Carmy initially thinks), Sydney is immediately thrown into the chaos of a kitchen Carmy has no control over, a place where his staff blows off his instructions and he's regularly berated by his brother's brash, confrontational best friend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Still, she stays, seeing a place for herself to shine there.
Sydney, who acts as both Carmy's right hand and one of the people with whom he most frequently butts heads, is a breakout role for Edebiri, who has previously stolen scenes as Hattie on Dickinson and voices Missy on Big Mouth. She's idealistic but never wide-eyed, immensely talented yet extremely impatient. She can see the shape of her future clearly, but can't figure out how to earn the respect of her coworkers in the meantime. "I want to cook for people and make them happy and give them the best bacon on Earth," she explains to Marcus (Lionel Boyce) in the show's Season 1 finale. For now, that means working alongside Carmy, for better or worse.
In a chat with TV Guide, Edebiri spoke about how working with real women chefs helped her craft her character, how she related to Sydney, and what it was like accidentally stabbing Ebon Moss-Bachrach in the show's stunning, tumultuous seventh episode.
Sydney immediately has to be so many things at once: she's the audience surrogate, she's the straight man reacting to all the chaos. She's disrespected by the staff, but she's also really smart and eager to make changes. How did you approach finding the right balance between all of those beats?
Ayo Edebiri: It starts with [creator] Chris [Storer] and [executive producer] Joanna [Calo], who created and show-ran and directed, and conversations with them before we started filming. We got all the scripts beforehand, so I think reading everything, and being able to sit with it and kind of think about who Sydney is, both on my own and then with Chris and Joanna really helped me have a pretty steady foundation. I think also the training really helped. We got to work with actual chefs, and I think speaking with actual working chefs who are women helped me, just in terms of thinking about, how would I handle this in this space? How would I handle this load that she's given?
It was really cool to get to embody this character. I'm a dark-skinned Black woman, and I look like the people that I know. I got to play somebody who was that, and who was also complicated and flawed. That was really exciting.
I know you filmed in a real kitchen and worked with real food, and you just mentioned getting to speak with real chefs who are women. What was the training process and preparation like?
Edebiri: Jeremy and I both got to train at this place called ICE, the Institute of Culinary Education, for a few weeks. After that, Jeremy and I both went off and worked either privately with chefs or in restaurants actually doing staging. A lot of times, I would get paired up [with male chefs] — because I asked, not just because they were like, "Here, go work with the girl" — because it was really important to me to learn and see how men move and how they operate. But I really did want to learn how a chef that's not a man works in a kitchen, how they move in a kitchen. What are the things and the skills that they have learned, however consciously or subconsciously? How can I think about that while I'm trying to be Sydney?
I kept thinking about how much I loved how rude Tina [Liza Colón-Zayas] was to Sydney at first. Sydney's the youngest person in the kitchen, and she's also one of only two women in this male-dominated space, and Tina not only shuts down her attempts to connect, but also really messes with her.
Edebiri: Liza Colón-Zayas is a genius and so wonderful, and we'd have a lot of conversations where she was like, "I hate being this way." But I totally understand the intimidation [Tina] feels, all the things that are going on with her own biases and prejudices and assumptions. It was really cool getting to have this relationship between two women that is not buddy-buddy. I think Sydney also comes in with this expectation of being like, "Hey, yes, girl! Come on, here we go!" And Tina's like, "No, I don't know who you are." Tina sees Sydney as a threat, as a harbinger of change, in a way that I think is challenging and interesting.
In Episode 5, Sydney's trying to figure out what to do for the updated dinner menu, and it finally clicks for her when she's in bed late at night. I appreciated the way it spoke to this larger deal with capitalism and creative jobs where you have to invest a lot of your personal time and yourself in order to succeed. I'm wondering if that was something you were able to relate to and how much of your own experience you were able to bring to moments like that.
Edebiri: I think that's really on the money. A lot of relating to Sydney and to the chefs when we would be cooking together and talking was this crazy feeling of, wow, we've all sort of been there in our respective industries. I think cooking and art, media, journalism, writing, all of these things, they have practical elements — capitalism, yes, and cooking, obviously the physical element of it, but they're creative jobs that sort of get watered down by the actual reality of having to work and all that's entailed in that, but they are creative jobs. I think the nuggets of these things, the reason we fall in love with them, are definitely related to just how wonderful it can feel to be able to create something and to connect to something outside of your lived experience. With female chefs, a lot of what we talked about, about trying to make your workplace equitable, trying to find humanity in an industry that can have a lot of history of cruelty and ego and abuse, and the hardships of that and of feeling like you're trying to make that change all by yourself, a lot of that really stuck true to me. But I have definitely been up in the night with an idea. Like, "This'll change everything!" And sometimes it doesn't. I've 100% been there.
All of the tension that starts simmering at the beginning of the series really boils over in Episode 7, which was all shot in the style of one uninterrupted take. What was it like filming something like that?
Edebiri: It wasn't initially going to be one shot, and then I think Chris and Joanna had this idea, and went over it with Andrew Wehde, who was the DP for the last seven episodes, and so they rewrote the episode as one shot, and then we had a rehearsal two days or a day before. We went over the script together. Liza and I think Ebon as well have experience in theater, and it felt like we were doing a play together, which was really cool. We came up with the moves together and adapted to each other, and Chris and Joanna would make changes as they saw fit. We did four or five takes on the day of, and one of the things that kind of goes through this show is sense of urgency, and that added to that sense of urgency for sure. I don't know which take they used, I think the first one or the fourth one. I think we all also kind of blacked out a little bit that day. We were just in it.
How was it getting to stab Ebon?
Edebiri: It was scary. We have so many hard, intense moments. It's really funny, because Ebon is my buddy, he's my Massachusetts buddy. He's the coolest, he's also such a Brooklyn dad, a very warm, cool guy, and so it's really funny that we're constantly at odds. We did a few versions of that too. I think there were some that were more intense and angry, and then the one that we ended with is definitely shocking, but there is something to me that's so funny about his reaction.
It's very, "Well, this again."
Edebiri: Yeah, and there's so much going on it's not even the biggest thing. Also, this probably isn't the first time that he's been stabbed. He probably deserved it.
That episode also ends with Sydney having had enough and quitting. Can you talk about filming that scene?
Edebiri: It was hard and kind of sad, and also we filmed pretty much in order, so there also was this sadness where I was like, "Oh man, I'm not going to be hanging out with everybody." I think Sydney really looks up to Carmy, and really wanted to make this work. She just got to a breaking point. That day in the kitchen is just a really overwhelming day, and I think a lot of the stress and the trauma she's endured in the kitchen, that she's also shared with Carmy, is all just brought up. She was sort of brought to a place where she was like, "I just can't be here." It was really interesting when we were doing some of the stages, the chefs were telling stories. I actually staged at this restaurant where they were like, "It's actually good you're here because we had a stage walk out today." And I was like, "Whoa, what happened?" And they were like, "We were in the middle of service, and they were like, 'I can't do this anymore.'" It's interesting that there are real-life parallels.
What are your thoughts on the ending of the season? Do you find it hopeful that Sydney goes back to working with Carmy?
Edebiri: I do find it hopeful and kind of beautiful, but also, it's very funny to me, to be perfectly frank. I've seen people also be like, "It's absolutely insane that somebody in Sydney's sous position would be working at this restaurant." And I'm like, "Yes, correct. It is." But it's like she says, this feels like the one place where she knows if she works with Carmy, they can make something. If she goes back to a job with an impressive name, she knows she's not going to be actually doing anything of worth, or of worth to her, there. That's something that can feel very relatable. This thing is a big name or a big opportunity, but is it going to be feeding my soul and challenging me in a way that I actually want it to be? I do just find it kind of funny that after all this trauma you're like, "OK, are they gonna be learning from this?" And then they just have another idea for another business venture. Hopefully if we get a Season 2 we can go into that and explore it a little bit more.
All episodes of The Bear are now streaming on Hulu.